SPEAKING OF THE LIONS, LET’S TRY NOT TO UNTIL JUNE

ATLANTA — I know many of you would like to strangle the Lions for winning Sunday and dropping themselves from No. 1 to No. 2 in next year’s draft. To which I say:

Go ahead, do it.

No. Just kidding. Where’s your Christmas spirit? We might have looked at the Lions as the worst team in football all year — but obviously we weren’t looking far enough.

Here in Georgia, in the last game of the season, we found a creature few people thought existed. The Atlanta Falcon. So inept, so pathetic, that Detroit looked playoff-bound by comparison.

Let’s be honest. On Sunday, the Lions played as if they were late for a bus; the Falcons played as if they’d been run over by it. Four interceptions. A missed field goal. A star running back who left with double vision. A rookie quarterback who throws as if suffering the same affliction. Missed tackles. Dropped passes. All in front of a crowd that was smaller than an Amway sales meeting.

How can you not give these guys the No. 1 pick? That’d be like sticking the thorn back in the lion’s paw. Waving to the crowd

And speaking of Lions, let us do that — for the final time this year. To which I say:

HALLELUJAH!

No. Just kidding. Although there are some players who might share the emotion. The truth is, this Lions team — which finishes with a 4-11 record, tied for second worst in the NFL — is made up of three factions: one group that insists on saying something positive, no matter how ridiculous it sounds; one group that bites its lip, showing discretion (or hiding cold sores); and one group that speaks its mind.

Shoot me. I prefer the last.

James Jones, the fullback, is in that group. When asked after Sunday’s 30-13 victory whether he was relieved this season was over, he said, and I’m trying to quote accurately here: “WHEW!”

And when will he think about football next?

“HA! . . . HO! . . . June.”

Eric Williams is also in that “candid” group. He admitted that during Sunday’s finale — played before just 13,906 rain- soaked fans — the huddle was, well, loose. “We were joking around. Having fun. At one point, right in the middle, Jimmy Williams waved to somebody in the stands. And I said, ‘What are you doin’, man?’ And he said, ‘That’s my cousin up there.’ ”

Hey. Can you blame them? Would you have wanted to see a game that contained three interceptions on three consecutive passes? Chris Miller to the Lions. Chuck Long back to the Falcons. Chris Miller back to the Lions. Come on, guys. Switch uniforms before you make us dizzy.

The only reason anybody gave a hoot about this losers’ showdown is that next year’s No. 1 draft pick was on the line. And now it’s off the line and hanging in Atlanta’s closet. But don’t blame the Lions. They tried their best stuff. Dropped passes. Blown coverages. Nothing worked. It was like trying to force baby food into an infant’s mouth.

We’re No. 2.

We try a little. If that’s an honor . . .

And what does it all mean, losing that No. 1 pick? Not that much. There is no franchise player out there this year. It figures. The Lions finally reach the front of the welfare line, and the benefits have been cut.

Truth is, the difference between the first and second picks next spring

might matter only if the same guy was each team’s first preference. Odds are against it.

Then again, you can’t do better than No. 1. No doubt some team might want a Tim Brown or Keith Jackson badly enough to trade for the top pick. And now it will trade with Atlanta.

“We weren’t concerned with that,” Jones said. “Personally, I didn’t want us to get it. The No. 1 pick is not an honor you want as a football team.”

And you know, he’s right. You realized it watching these Lions dress for the last time Sunday. This is not a hopeless team. The players are young. They need direction. You can criticize them. But you can’t tell them to lose. That’s going against what you’ve told them all season. Had the Lions won one or two more along the way, this draft business wouldn’t even be an issue, and–.

Listen to me. I sound almost . . . sympathetic.

Well. Forget it. Lighten up. No. 1 or No. 2. No big deal. Keep that Christmas spirit, give to the needy — and Atlanta is surely needy — and who knows? That No. 2 guy may turn out to be a winner. Or at least someone who won’t hold out all year.

“It’s a relief not being last,” said Darryl Rogers, in his final 1987 post-game press conference, “although 26th or 27th isn’t much better.”

That’s our coach. Tell ’em, Darryl. Besides, when all is said and done, Detroit got what it really wanted from the Lions’ football season Sunday.

It’s over, isn’t it?

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